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Of wood and rivers: bridging the perception gap

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Wood and beaver dams were historically much more abundant along river corridors from the tropics to the boreal zone. An extensive scientific literature documents the physical and ecological functions created by instream and floodplain wood. By enhancing physical diversity, wood mediates fluxes of water, solutes, organic matter, and sediment; enhances habitat abundance and diversity; promotes retention and biogeochemical uptake of nutrients; and increases biodiversity. Perceptions of wood in rivers, however, remain largely negative and wood is seldom incorporated in river management and restoration plans outside of the U.S. Pacific Northwest. People are unused to seeing wood in river corridors as a result of a long history of deliberate wood removal from rivers, combined with altered land cover and river engineering that reduced quantities of wood in rivers. Negative perceptions of wood in rivers may also reflect hazards, including damage to infrastructure from mobile wood or wood accumulations at bridges that enhance flood damages. People are also unused to seeing beavers in river corridors because of a long history of beaver trapping and substantially reduced beaver populations throughout Eurasia and North America. Extensive and sustained removal of wood and beavers from river corridors has created substantial changes in the appearance and function of rivers. As river restoration increasingly emphasizes re‐creation of processes rather than static forms, the river science community has an opportunity to increase public recognition of the vital role played by wood and beavers in sustaining physically and biologically diverse and resilient river ecosystems. WIREs Water 2015, 2:167–176. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1076 This article is categorized under: Water and Life > Conservation, Management, and Awareness Science of Water > Water Extremes Human Water > Water as Imagined and Represented
Panoramic downstream view of a portion of the river corridor along North St. Vrain Creek in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, USA. The main channel is to the right. The downed wood in the foreground is from normal, individual tree mortality, rather than mass mortality. (Photograph courtesy of Lina Polvi)
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Sign outside a small café and general store in the village of Elk Creek, Pennsylvania following severe flooding in 2012. The village is along Upper Fishing Creek in the Susquehanna River Basin. Photograph courtesy of R. Craig Kochel, who described this scenario as ‘bring your own bulldozer’ in recognition of the magnitude of wood removal being undertaken by individuals and small communities in this rural area.
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Photographs illustrating alternate stable states of beaver meadow (extensive floodplain wetlands when beaver dams are present; upper left and bottom photo) and elk grasslands (drier floodplain grasslands with single incised channels when beaver dams are absent; upper right).
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Human Water > Water as Imagined and Represented
Water and Life > Conservation, Management, and Awareness
Science of Water > Water Extremes

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